“The most important thing in life is not happiness but meaning.”
— John M. Hull, Notes on Blindness
Set in the summer of 1983, Notes on Blindness is a beautiful 2016 documentary that explores the life of writer and theologian John M. Hull.
Based on his memoir, Touching the Rock, the film offers a deeply personal account of an academic who permanently loses his vision while anticipating the birth of his son.
Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney draw from audio cassettes recorded by Hull at the time, which attempt to explain and understand the experience of blindness through vivid philosophical reflections on everyday events and experiences.
Notes on Blindness begins as a kind of intellectual exercise designed to recover a sense of mastery and control, but it becomes a moving testimony on disability, family, and the journey toward personal acceptance.
The audio recordings are dramatised through moving and understated performances of Hull and his family. Soft light, oblique angles and dark interiors create a cinematography of the glimpse, fragmented and out of focus, helping viewers to relate to Hull’s frustrations with his defamiliarised environment.
We rely on visual metaphors and analogies to understand and order the world, to orient ourselves in meaningful relation to others. But how can one be illuminated or enlightened, how can one seek and find, in a world where light and dark do not exist?
Notes on Blindness challenges commonplace assumptions about the naturalness of time, place, and identity—the universality or uniformity of perceptions—to ask how our bodies shape our awareness of the world.
Markers of temporal duration do not offer linear order to a life that is lived in the present; definitions of near and far are meaningless in a landscape that is tactile, close; while dream, memory, and lived reality reconfigure agency and selfhood.
Joakim Sundström’s enhanced soundtrack allows sighted audiences to experience Hull’s everyday moments in a rich and evocative way: the heightened sound of rainfall through an open door, the vibrations of a car journeying across the Australian landscape, the wind rushing through grass near a shoreline. These moments of immersion each have a singular and distinctive beauty.
Notes on Blindness helps to forge a greater understanding of Hull’s intellectual transformations as an academic and theologian, but also forms a deep and abiding sense of empathy between its audience and its subject.
The filmmakers’ simulations of Hull’s experiences, and their careful attention to small but crucial details, allow us to witness, in a manner of speaking, Hull’s moments of personal transcendence and grace—of trial and difficulty gifted by a sense of the miraculous.
I was deeply moved by this film.
Find out more about Notes on Blindness at notesonblindness.co.uk